The first king



Matteo Rovere’s film Il Primo Re is likely to be one of 2019’s more unusual successes – it’s all in Latin for starters.    To my knowledge, Rome’s origin story has not been told so energetically since Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott hammed it up in Sergio Corbucci’s 1961 Duel of the TitansSteve-Reeves-Gordon-Scott-Duel-of-theAt a time when Italian cinema seems stuck in romantic comedies or self-referential nostalgia, a tightly-focussed, claustrophobic account of the eighth century BC is unexpected box office fare, and fully deserves the praise it is receiving.

Aficionados of the game of celluloid anachronisms will certainly have fun, though it’s much better informed than its predecessor.[1]  The plot though is barely recognisable when set against the ancient sources, and Rovere has noted that the ancient sources are themselves a distorting lens.  In these brief first reflections on a bold and original film, I want to concentrate on what kind of society Rovere is depicting, and what we might say about the choices he makes.

Going back to Duel of the Titans is instructive in several ways.[2]  First, Corbucci’s heroes and heroines had already discovered soap.  Rovere’s cast slosh around in mud and blood, and as with Caravaggio’s heroes, their fingernails are seldom clean, and their teeth are awful, when they haven’t been knocked out.[3] Il-primo-re-è The limits of what is acceptable from one’s heroes has changed.  Second, Corbucci had a cast of hundreds.  Long raking shots of caravans, massed armies, and heaving, crowded theatres are the order of the day.  Only in the final battle, for effect, are the proto-Romans reduced to a plucky little band who still overcome the Sabines.  Rovere’s Latium is poorly populated and under-cultivated.  It is pastoralism at its most basic.  Third, there is a subtly different political rhetoric.  Dual of the Titans is not a thinking person’s film, but it contains brief moments of normative democratic discourse; Romulus’ complaint about Alba Longa’s lawlessness and Julia’s defence of the laws of treaty are textbook.  Rovere sees it differently.  Fourthly, Latium in 1961 has a strong, albeit stereotyped role for women. u-g-Q1C2K1K0 Julia, played by Virna Lisi, is politically savvy, diplomatic, and nurturing.  Ornella Vanoni, playing Tarpeia, is sultry and traitorous, led astray by her passion for Remus, as clearly indicated by the fact she wears trousers, and her increasing incapacity as the film goes on to find a comb.  (The register of social signals was so much clearer back then).

Rovere has borrowed the femme fatale, but Satnei, played by Tania Garribba from underneath industrial quantities of mascara, is a figure entirely in the religious realm.  She fulfils the Mediterranean cliché of the hugely effective curse-caster, reducing an unruly Latin to a quivering wreck. covermd_home3 We see not the slightest trace of the relatively wealthy and possibly political influential women who emerge from contemporary burials.[4]

If Corbucci’s decisions were driven by the expectations of the genre as much as anything, Rovere has a more nuanced reason.  He has said that he wanted to get behind the Roman story.[5]  Every choice is driven by this powerful vision of a primitive world barely emerging from the elemental water, fire and forest.  The idea of the Romans speaking a language not far developed from Indo-European, their tiny numbers and dark rituals, are all driving towards this insistence on archaic Latium as a place before civilisation.  In a note, Rovere spoke of the film as representing the origin of the western world.  Insofar as there is a political undertone to the film, which Rovere has denied,[6] it is perhaps that this origin is ground out of conflict and dystopia.

Both Corbucci and Rovere made the editorial decision to make Remus figure more strongly than he does in the ancient sources.[7]  Rovere is far more successful.  The 1960s Remus is headstrong, vicious and thoughtless.  He is the neighbourhood bad kid, and his end is the justifiable comeuppance of the schoolground bully.  The new Remus (Alessandro Borghi) is a much more gripping figure.

Rovere’s brilliant move is to make Remus the first king.  Satnei sees in him a divine spark; and he is a commanding physical presence in the film.  In contrast, Romulus (Alessio Lapice) is introspective, nervy and spends most of the film wheezing, groaning and nearly dying.  9847_da-castellammare-al-successo-con--il-primo-re--alessio-lapice-e-romolo-nel-film-tra-i-piu-attesi-del-2019But he is clever in a way Remus isn’t.  When the two brothers are captured by the Albans, and the captives are forced to fight each other to the death,[8] it is Romulus who turns the situation to their advantage by encouraging Remus to beat him up until he appears dead.  He then revives and seizes the Vestal Satnei, before they all escape.

The film’s turning point comes when the brothers and their few followers have made it out of the dangerous forest to a little village, whose menfolk they have already killed.[9]  At the feast, Satnei is encouraged to perform haruspicy, examining a sheep’s liver.[10]  She prophecies the coming empire, but the price is that one brother must kill the other.  Romulus, who is still rather feebly bed-bound, begs Remus to take his life, which Remus refuses to do.  Instead, Remus goes berserk. PrimoRe_Borghi

The huge difference which opens up between Remus and Romulus is that Remus comes to deny the existence of the gods, believing it is simply human fear that creates them.  His atheism is in contrast with Romulus’ piety – the very first scene shows Romulus praying.[11]  Romulus hears the voice of the gods, and Remus does not; Romulus has the company of the gods, and it is Remus who in the end is left alone.  Maddened, Remus falls into a destructive rage.  His kingship becomes tyranny, he destroys Satnei, nearly extinguishes the sacred fire which she had guarded, and leads his men to a catastrophe, from which he is barely saved by Romulus and the women and children of the tiny village.  The fight and Remus’ inevitable death follow quickly – and if there is one obvious criticism of the film, it is that it ends weakly, with lots of blubbering and earnest speeches, and an anachronistic, slightly Viking influenced cremation.[12]

The question that is not really addressed is what is lost by the rather manipulative Romulus winning, rather than the straightforward Remus.  Satnei calls Romulus ‘the assassin.’  As the film fades to that awful cinematic cliché of the map of the Roman empire turning red with blood, are we supposed to believe that Remus would have managed it better?  The evidence is against it, but the film maybe hints at a preference for the phenotype of the swashbuckling Antony over the scheming pieties of Octavian – empire in the name of might, not the sickly peddling to the destiny of the gods.

Rovere casts the dilemma slightly differently; ‘Who is more divine, the man who rebels against God to protect love or God who asks the man to sacrifice that same love?’[13] In the end however, given that the film pushes itself as creation myth, even to the extent of starting with a flood and making Rome virgin soil, the choice between atheist fraternity and divine subjection bringing an empire born in pain and destined to bring pain to others, seems foundational.

If Rovere had wanted an ancient source for this, he might have looked to Ovid.  In Fasti 2, explaining the origin of the Lupercalia, the little community is sacrificing a sheep to Faunus.  News comes that their herds are being stolen by neighbours.  The twins race off in different directions, and Remus catches up with the rustlers first, returns and then eats the entrails or exta from the sacrifice.  “These only the victor shall eat,” he says, leaving Romulus hungry – but the act is also sacrilegious.[14]  So Romulus’ smile in Ovid is often thought to be as knowing as I took Romulus’ tears to be, when Remus refused to take his life. It’s the moment Romulus knows the gods are on one side only.

The Fasti is a monumentally clever piece of work, of course, and the relationship between Romulus, Augustus and the cosmic order is lurking all the time.  Its brilliance lies partly in the multiple different ways in which Ovid explains the origins of festivals.  No film can match that.  But it is interesting to see the multiple ideas and half-ideas which are under the surface of Il Primo Re.  Remus is Enkidu to Romulus’ Gilgamesh, pastoral Cain to the other’s about-to-be-arable Abel; Romulus is the wounded suffering man of destiny; the city of Rome is the escape from the wild; and so on. 1543494558_borghi-primo-re

This is also however the intellectual weakness of a film, which claims to eschew politics, as no Roman ever could when thinking about Romulus and Remus.  The foundation of Rome was political, however one told the story.  Here, the politics is smothered by a muddy Indo-Europeanism and  some weepy brotherly emoting, which isn’t in any way clarified by the river of blood spilled on all sides.  And that intellectual weakness is rather dangerous; this is prime territory for modern myth-makers.[15]  Indeed I tend to think that it is precisely because the film has no need for the much longer messier process of interaction and coalescence across central Italy, which is what we see in the archaeology, that it can indulge in this anachronistic notion of the savage wilderness from which civilisation emerges as new in 753 BC.[16]  Occluding our long history of co-operation across societies and across genders is political too.

[1] Valentino Nizzo has posted a super video from the Villa Giulia, where he is Director, illustrating the remarkable finds there which are precisely contemporary with the supposed date of the events.  The kardiophylakes or breastplates are the wrong shape for Latium and only worn on the front, not on the back as well; swords are thrust perilously into clothing instead of the functional scabbards we know of; and there’s scarcely a helmet in sight despite the presence of them in the archaeological record of the time.  Instead there are some rather peculiar face masks.  Horses are used in an implausible cavalry charge, but there are no chariots.  There are anachronisms in vessels used, and a surprisingly high ratio of Etruscan names for the early Latins.  Critically, there appears to be no-one in Rome, whereas in fact we know the site was occupied and had been for centuries.

[2] Much to Rovere’s credit, despite some fairly unpleasant things happening to animals throughout, we are assured that no harm came to them.  I would not be sure the same is true of the Clash of the Titans, where the horse scenes looked horrendous.

[3] Caries, abcesses and damage from erosion by gritty food are all attested in the skeletal evidence.

[4] See for instance Federica Pitzalis , Volontà meno apparente (La). Donne e società nell’Italia centrale tirrenica tra VIII e VII secolo a.C., Rome 2011.


[6] , an interview with Giacomo Savani (University of Leeds).

[7] See for a full account T. P. Wiseman, Remus: A Roman Myth, Cambridge 1995.  Wiseman’s core argument that Remus was invented in the late fourth century BC obviously has no purchase here.

[8] Clearly a precursor of gladiatorial combats, another supposedly Etruscan invention.

[9] The village is clearly built on a floodplain rather like a Terramare village, and not one of the hilltop sites favoured in central Italy at the time.  The huts are also rather less sturdy than we tend to envisage for the period, on the basis of the models which were used even before the mid-eighth century as urns for the ashes from cremations.  Our knowledge of Latin settlements is being transformed by Nic Terrenato and his team’s work at Gabii:

[10] Again an Etruscan practice.

[11] This may be based on e.g. Dionysius of Halicarnassus 1.79.12-14 where Romulus prays whilst Remus tends the flocks.  In the film, Romulus’ prayer for better weather is signally unsuccessful, since it is met with a tsunami.  However it is also interesting that the prayer is to Diana, the dea triplice, goddess of Lake Nemi and its ancient grove, and there is a critical moment when Remus kills a stag, which will save them all, especially Romulus from death.  Diana is the deer hunter par excellence.  Filippo Coarelli and his team have been working for some years to show the long history of the sanctuary at Lake Nemi; see for instance and G. Ghini, F. Coarelli, P.Branconi, F. Diosono, Il Santuario di Diana a Nemi. Le terrazze e il ninfeo. Scavi 1989-2009, Roma, 2014.

[12] By the mid-eighth century inhumation was far more common in Latium.  The film does note the connection between Remus and the solemn feast of the Lemuria, which we find in Ovid, Fasti, 5.421-92.


[14] Ovid Fasti 2.360-80.

[15] Donna Zuckerberg, Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age, Harvard 2018; see also Tobias Jones on the quasi-mythical interests of CasaPound, from Tolkien to sci-fi and fantasy, to the ancient world

[16] See for instance David Wengrow and David Graeber, , building on substantial prior scholarship.


1 thought on “The first king”

  1. I think it was well worth my time. While script could have been better and it had a rushed ending, authenticity, costumes ,locations etc get 10/10. A fascinating movie many won’t appreciate, nearly psychodelic at times. It is one of those movies that transported me to a time and place. I was actually believing these were iron age humans rather I was watching. I even think that in one moment when Romulus asks Remus: “Brother, do you not hear the gods?” and Remus is like “O_o?” but then due to stress shortly after that sentence he does hear voices, they wanted to give a very subtle hint at theory of origin of consciousness and breakdown of bicameral mind but they left it at that ambiguity because it was too experimental. It neverthelesss made me rethink the whole movie in light of that theory and on rewatch my jaw dropped how everything fit.

    Basically like Odysseus in Wrath of Achilles novel (an excellent book) a man,in this case Remus, with modern consciousness or very close to it is trapped in a society where nearly everyone still has vestiges of bicameral mind (which means they have constant auditory and common visual hallucinations, particularly in excited states), and is thus baffled by behavior of his countrymen because he simply doesn’t see or hear what they see or hear. Remus cannot comprehend that Romulus and everyone else probably hears and even sees Gods when near Vestal fire.


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